At the end of Harold Lloyd’s BUMPING INTO BROADWAY, previously discussed on Sunday, Harold essays a trope that would become quite familiar, and may have been old even in 1919, I’m not sure. All set to go into his final fadeout clinch with Bebe Daniels, Harold and his girl suddenly seems to notice us watching. He thoughtfully repositions a nearby screen to conceal the snog, but then notices that the screen had been hiding a few of the cops who have been chasing him for most of the last reel. Thoughtfully, he replaces the screen, thus deactivating the policemen like budgies whose cage has been covered, then he lifts up a rug and holds it before himself and Bebe as a sort of curtain.
So overwhelming is the act of kissing Bebe, however, that Harold drops the rug, and we fade out on the traditional clinch, save for the fact that Harold’s hand is held high as if still holding the rug. He THINKS he’s achieved some privacy, but like the vengeful camera which pursues Buster Keaton in Beckett’s FILM, our gaze is insatiable.
A year later, and Buster is doing a variation on this joke in ONE WEEK. It’s a famous shot: leading lady Sybil Seely drops the soap while bathing, and notices the camera’s presence just as she is about to retrieve it. The friendly cameraman puts his hand over the lens, and Sybil is able to grab her bar and gives a grateful grin to the operator as she lowers herself back into the water, modesty more or less preserved.
Keaton’s gag is bolder than Lloyd’s, firstly because it happens in the middle of the film. I think there’s a kind of understanding that endings are allowed to be a bit self-referential, since the audience is about to be forcefully confronted with the fact that what they’ve been watching was, in fact, a film, when the lights come up. Of course we never wholly forget this anyway, but jokes about our shared, willed illusion are easier to justify if placed at the end so they don’t really disrupt the film’s reality.
(Under the right circumstances, a comedy’s ending can be allowed to trash everything that went before, and nobody minds. Surely it was screenwriter Frank Tashlin who was responsible for the ending of the Bob Hope movie THE PALEFACE, in which leading lady Jane Russell is dragged off by wild horses, prompting Bob to turn to us and remark, “What were you expecting, a happy ending?”)
The Keaton gag goes further than the Lloyd one also by using the camera lens as prop. Lloyd admits there’s an audience, but Keaton admits there’s a camera and a cameraman who allow that audience to see the action, and who can choose to prevent it. The shameless Sybil doesn’t, apparently, mind being seen naked by the cameraman, but she’s not getting them out for the viewing public.